Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of five articles called Mayday! The declining pilot population. You can read all the articles here.
I was born and raised in the UK and learned to fly in a small Scottish flying club based around a Piper L-4 Cub. Group ownership of aircraft is very common across Europe as a way of dealing with the high cost of flying and can also provide a friendly social environment. For me the latter was especially true as one of the aircraft co-owners eventually became my wife!
Janet and I moved across the Atlantic in 2001 when I was hired to run the wonderful EAA museum in Oshkosh. We were completely blown away by the aviation environment we found in the USA–compared to the UK it felt like arriving in paradise! Half price airplanes, fuel at one-third the price, airports everywhere, free weather briefings, affordable hangars, no charges to fly in controlled airspace and, get this, no landing fees, anywhere… wow, this was the place to be!
We discovered important new freedoms from government interference and large associations to protect the right to fly. There were incredible huge expos like Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun, along with hundreds of local air shows and grassroots fly-ins. And what about these astonishing places called “residential air parks,” an incredible concept!
Even today, Janet and I still giggle with glee every time we experience the highest achievement of aviation civilization: the airport courtesy car.
Seriously, the range and quality of GA infrastructure in the United States can sometimes be taken for granted, but it’s like no other place on earth. One really comes to appreciate an ample supply of mechanics when you’ve had the experience of being grounded for weeks because no one is available, in a country of 60 million people, to make a simple repair to your plane.
With this background you might begin to understand the passion and commitment I feel towards my new job with AOPA. The organization has established a new unit called the Center to Advance the Pilot Community, and its mission is to reverse a slow decline in general aviation in the United States that has been underway for the past three decades.
Sitting on the desk on my first morning was an excellent research study published recently by a graduate student at MIT with help from the readers of AvWeb. It uses a large amount of statistical data to confirm what active pilots know from their own observations–by almost every measure available, GA has been in a slow and steady decline for roughly 30 years. There are fewer pilots, they are flying less, and they are getting older.
These words really jumped at me out of the MIT report:
…as the pilot population declines, in part due to increasing costs, the economies of scale in all aspects of cost in general aviation will diminish and will push costs up even more, creating a crippling positive feedback loop.
This is exactly what happened in the UK, and we simply can’t afford to let it happen here. Unfortunately, the MIT study shows that the downward trend seems to have been accelerating since 2008, and this is creating the sense of urgency that AOPA feels in establishing the new Center.
So what is to be done?
Obviously we need to be eternally vigilant about the cost and complexity of aviation, and I feel the biggest impact an organization like AOPA can have here is through government advocacy. There will always be defensive efforts like the ongoing fight against user fees, but what makes us feel really good are the times when we can get on the offensive and achieve a reduction in cost or bureaucratic burden. (The 3rd class medical petition being a good current example.) I would be interested to read your suggestions about where we might go next.
Some important work at FAA is being done by my former EAA colleague, Earl Lawrence, to reform and modernize the aircraft certification process. Faster and less costly ways to bring modern technology into GA aircraft will help meet customer expectations, and it should bring important safety benefits too. It is really good to see the FAA starting to think about customer needs–we should encourage this at every step, and also take note ourselves. Any industry that becomes disconnected from the needs and desires of its customers is surely headed for failure.
The first major new initiative of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community will be to get strongly behind the concept of flying clubs. We are announcing all the details next week at the AOPA Summit in Palm Springs. But, briefly, flying clubs do seem like a solid place to invest some of our time and resources. They work hard to keep the cost of flying down, usually with the type of supportive community that research has shown to be a vital factor in keeping pilots active and engaged. It seems to be a vibrant and successful model (our research identified over 650 flying clubs in the USA) with lots of room for growth and improvement.
We will also be continuing the work that AOPA began a couple of years ago with the publication of detailed research into the horrendously bad drop-out rate (80%) in flight training. If we could move that needle even 10%, we would capture thousands of new pilots each year. The research work is now translating into practical projects such as the Flight Training Excellence Awards, which have received over 2,400 nominations from customers for flight schools and CFIs. By recognizing the best in the business, we hope to motivate an improvement in standards. The Awards are also creating a way we can start directing new students to higher quality flight training experiences.
In addition to looking at how we bring new people into aviation, we’ll also be paying attention to the other end of the pipeline. There’s an old business adage that it’s cheaper to retain a customer than it is to acquire a new one. Yet every year we allow thousands of people to drift away–people that have invested all the time and money to earn their certificates. I see ways that we can work a lot harder to keep them, and to attract recently-lapsed pilots back.
So these are my initial thoughts on the activities of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community. But the real purpose of writing this article is to stimulate some discussion and feedback. I don’t have all the answers (yet!) and am really interested in your ideas on how we can turn GA around.
Finally, let’s try to stay positive and optimistic. I can’t think of any turnaround in history that was driven by negative thinking, and we actually have plenty of reasons to be cheerful! Aviation has lost none of its ability to provide incredible, life-enhancing experiences. It’s safer than ever before, and there are millions of people out there with the time and money to fly. We also have an incredibly strong community. Aviation seems to have an uncanny way of attracting some of the finest people in the world, and in this work ahead of us, they are probably our most important asset of all.
About the author: Born and raised in northern England, Adam obtained degrees in modern history and museology from the University of Leeds, England and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Prior to relocating to the USA he managed the Scottish National Museum of Flight, located on a historic airfield near Edinburgh. While there, he learned to fly in a World War II Piper L-4. Adam worked for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh from 2001 until 2012 where he oversaw the operation of the EAA AirVenture Museum, aircraft operations, youth education programs, membership programs, Chapters and publications. He also organized the program of features and attractions at the annual AirVenture fly-in. He recently joined AOPA as senior vice president of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community. The Center has been created to stop the slow, steady decline in the number of certificated pilots in the United States and seek ways to stimulate growth. Adam currently owns a Cessna 180 and a clipped-wing J-3 Cub, and is building a replica of a World War I Sopwith Pup using original plans.